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What About Catholicism?

November 02, 2008     Time: 00:15:02
What About Catholicism?


Conversation with William Lane Craig

Transcript What About Catholicism?


Kevin Harris: Dr. Craig, sometimes tensions can arise between theologies. I see tension in this quite often. I tend to call it Catholic-bashing from evangelicals from time-to-time who just really regard Catholics as so thoroughly deceived that they are almost in a hopeless state. Then I’ve got other believers who say, no, we only disagree about 10%, we agree on a lot of the essentials, and things like that. Why don’t you take a stab at this. Sorry to put you in such a hot seat. Guide us through the sometimes troubled waters of relationship between Protestants and Catholics.

Dr. Craig: Well, Kevin, I am a Protestant. Therefore, I obviously have some disagreements with Catholic doctrine. But having said that, I am also not a Presbyterian. I am not an Episcopalian. I have disagreements with those denominations as well. So the fact that I have some disagreements with Catholics, and therefore could not, I think, in all good conscience be a Catholic myself, isn’t to say that I regard Catholics as somehow sub-Christian or un-Christian anymore than I think Presbyterian and Episcopalians are. So we could talk if you wanted to about some of the areas where I myself cannot in good conscience affirm Catholic doctrine. But on the other hand, I do want to affirm that my fundamental goal with Reasonable Faith is to defend what C. S. Lewis called “mere Christianity” which is the Christianity that is common to all of the great branches of Christendom whether they be Catholic, Protestant, or Orthodox, or Coptic. That is my burden, is what unites us rather than what divides us.

Kevin Harris: You are already going to draw criticism from those who say, “Well, you need to take a harder, tougher line on Catholicism because it distorts the Gospel.” So you can’t win in this. I think, however, we can win by maybe just discussing some of the places where Protestants and Catholics disagree. Protestants are just Catholics who think that the Catholic Church needs some reformation perhaps.

Dr. Craig: Well, and Catholics now, since Vatican II, regard Protestants as separated brethren. They do not condemn Protestants. They think that Protestants are Christian brothers and sisters but separated from the true church that Christ has established. So we certainly are living in a new era, I think, in which Catholic-Protestant relations are much friendlier than they have been in the past.

Kevin Harris: I see a lot more Bible reading among my Catholic friends, who have often complained that they were not encouraged to read the Bible perhaps growing up. I don’t know what that is, but I’ve seen a lot of fruit there from our Catholic friends. Getting into the Word and digging in for themselves.

Dr. Craig: Yes, and that can only be a very positive development, I think. As they become familiar with the Bible and submit themselves to what the Bible has to teach, I think we can all rejoice in that.

Kevin Harris: What would keep you or prevent you from being a Catholic?

Dr. Craig: Well, one of the difficulties that I have would be with the doctrine of justification as it was enunciated at the Council of Trent, which is one of the most important Catholic councils for enunciating Catholic doctrine. In the Council of Trent, it has a description of how justification takes place. [1] It makes it very clear that our response to God’s grace is just that – that God takes the initiative, God’s grace leads out. We then respond to God’s grace and he infuses into us his justifying grace. What this grace does is give us the power to perform good works which in turn merit eternal life. Now, it is that last bit that really gives me pause. All the rest of it is great, but I don’t think of the good works we do as being meritorious of eternal life. That seems to me to teach salvation by works. If you say that God gives me the power to do meritorious works that then earn salvation, that seems to me to undercut the doctrine of salvation by grace alone. What our Catholic friends will very quickly say is, “Ah, but these works are only done by God’s grace. It is God’s grace that gives you the power and the drive to do these meritorious works.” So in one sense, it wants to say “No, no. These works are only grace. It is ultimately grace and not works.” But nevertheless the bottom line it seems to me still remains that whether through the grace of God or not, I perform works which then merit eternal life. I don’t think as biblical Christians that we want to say that. So that is one of the aspects of Catholic doctrine that gives me real pause.

Kevin Harris: Bill, I cannot count the number of times when I’ve gotten in discussions with Catholic friends who have said to me, “Kevin, by the way, what is it that distinguishes you and me? What do you guys believe?” They want to know what the differences are. Where do you think, in opportunities like that, where should we go? First to justification?

Dr. Craig: Yes, I think that is the bottom line really, Kevin. Other things such as church government or the sacraments or other sorts of doctrines are important but really at the heart of it is going to be justification. Because justification by grace alone through faith I think is the central Protestant insight and I think it is a biblical insight. Therefore, that is something I think that we need to insist upon. What I find in talking to Catholic friends is that their understanding of the doctrine of justification at Trent is really the same as mine. They don’t think that they earn salvation. They don’t think that they perform meritorious works that earn salvation. The way they interpret it is that God by his grace gives me the power to live a good life, and therefore I go to heaven and it is all due to God’s grace. It is wholly by grace alone. So the line of distinction becomes very blurred or very fine. I think that in many cases practicing Catholics may not be much different than Protestants. Do you see what I mean? There may be these council conciliar statements on paper, but the way certain born again Catholics really live and what they really believe may be much closer to what Protestants think than what these conciliar statements literally say.

Kevin Harris: Protestants are often drawn to the beauty, reverence, and the high church style of the Catholic Church. And they think maybe we are a little too loosy-goosy in ours and are drawn to that from time to time. But we still need to look at doctrine.

Dr. Craig: I think so, Kevin. That’s the bottom line. I am tremendously attracted to this great tradition, this great historic Catholic tradition and to the great thinkers that have graced that church. And to the beauty of the worship service, of the ceremonies, the buildings, and so forth. I do find all of that very attractive. So I can understand people who would want to be Catholic because of those things. But ultimately, it does get down to doctrine. And if you can’t in good conscience subscribe to the doctrine then I think you shouldn’t be a Catholic. Similarly, I couldn’t be a Presbyterian or an Anglican or an Episcopalian because I just don’t believe the doctrines that these denominations teach. [2] So even though I may be very attracted to them in other ways, I could not be a member of that denomination. So ultimately I think if we are not going to be religious hypocrites, we have to ask ourselves, “Can I in good conscience believe the things that – in this case, the Catholic Church – stands for?” I find myself over and over again saying, “Well, I can’t really affirm that in good conscience.”

Kevin Harris: Dr. Craig, the Virgin Mary is a really sticking point as well between Catholics and Protestants. Probably a lot of misunderstanding there as to her status. There was a move awhile back to really elevate Mary almost to the equality of Christ, co-redemptrix. I don’t think that ever got off the ground in the Catholic Church but there was a move there. That was very distressing to Protestants as well who see Catholics as worshipping Mary, a human being.

Dr. Craig: And Catholics resist that vigorously saying “We do not worship Mary. She is honored but she is not the subject of worship.” Here you have one of these situations where again the doctrine seems to be right but the practice in many cases does seem to verge on idolatry. It is distressing for a Protestant to go into a cathedral or a church and see the altar to Mary ablaze with a forest of candles and another altar where Jesus is pictured and has hardly any candles in front of it where prayers are offered. It does seem in practice many times a kind of Mary-olatry does occur.

Kevin Harris: In Mexico, that kind of an image of a very rigorous, vigorous Mary exalted, arms outstretched, very much alive. But then the crucifix has the crucified, beaten Savior. So Jesus is not seen as vigorous and alive as Mary just in the statuary and so on.

Dr. Craig: Right, and for the average peasant, so often it will be Mary that he approaches in prayer and seeks help and succor from instead of Christ. She really does, again, in practice, I think, preempt the role of Christ. So this would be kind of the mirror image of what I was saying before where sometimes practicing Catholics’ attitude toward justification is better than the doctrine. In this case, I think the doctrine is better than the practice many times. The doctrine of the church is very clear that it doesn’t worship Mary or think of her as on a par with Jesus. But in popular Catholic piety, sometimes it seems that that line is crossed.

Kevin Harris: In conclusion Dr. Craig, if you were to sit down and have coffee with a person of the Catholic faith, what would your approach be with them? What would you want to know or find out?

Dr. Craig: I think I would want to know whether or not that person has a vital relationship with Christ, or whether or not this person has simply been raised in the church and this is a kind of proforma religion that hasn’t really resulted in a regenerate heart. That may be difficult to discern but I do think that that is the bottom line. Catholics that I’ve talk to that are clearly born again believers will readily say the Catholic Church needs to be evangelized. They will admit this right from the beginning – that the church is in need of evangelization. So I think that is the most important thing to try to discern. Whether this person we are speaking with is someone who really knows Christ and is a regenerate Christian or not. If not, then we want to try to help that person to make that commitment and move the knowledge from the head to the heart. [3]